The Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) has been around in some form since 1968. It was originally called the Sky Marshal Program and was under the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The program was never very large and at times has consisted of only a handful of agents. The overall mission has changed from time to time but after 1985 missions were primarily conducted on aircraft heading to and returning from overseas locations. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 the program expanded tremendously almost overnight. It was one of the fastest and largest federal government agency expansions in history. In the decade since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the FAMS alone had an annual budget that surpassed $950 Million on an annual basis. The program was eventually shifted to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) where it remains today, which is under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The total number of Federal Air Marshals is classified but it is rumored to be in the thousands. Even with thousands of agents, it is only possible to cover but a very small proportion of all commercial aviation flights daily. It has been reported that less than 1% of flights over the United States everyday have an Air Marshal onboard, since there are around 30,000 commercial aircraft flights over the United States daily. Certain aircraft have higher priority in being “covered” by FAM's. Federal Air Marshals undergo extensive training and have the highest firearms qualification standards in all of federal law enforcement within the federal government. In the past, aircraft hijackings were actually quite common worldwide. They occurred much less frequently nationally but they still happened from time to time. They rarely ended violently though. Usually the motives of hijackers were political or financial. They often demanded to be flown to a remote location and made negotiations with authorities; Cuba oftentimes being the destination. September 11th 2001 changed everything. We were not expecting such bold suicidal acts by hijackers. Luckily there have been no aviation hijacking attempts over US soil since 9-11. In recent years terrorists have attempted to use improvised explosive devices to blow up aircraft in midflight. The Bojinka Plot alone was designed to bring down 12 US bound flights in 1995. Richard Reid, also known as the Shoe Bomber, attempted to explode a bomb hidden in his shoes aboard an aircraft over the United States on December 22, 2001. The 2006 Transatlantic Aircraft Plot, also known as the Sports Drink Suicide Airline Bomb Plot of 2006 in the United Kingdom could have taken out 7 aircraft headed for the US with improvised explosive devices. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab successfully detonated a PETN based explosive device hidden in his underwear aboard Northwest Airlines Flight # 253 over Detroit Michigan on Christmas day in 2009. Luckily the aircraft was able to land. The Yemen Cargo Planes Bomb Plot of 2010 (also known as the 2010 transatlantic aircraft bomb plot) was an attempt to blow up aircraft over the United States using timed explosives hidden in computer printer toner cartridges by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). They also claim that they had blown up UPS Airlines Flight 6, a Boeing 747-400F while flying its route between Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Germany with the same type of bomb on September 3, 2010. Additionally, ISIS/ISIL was able to bring down Russian passenger plane Metrojet Flight 9268 flying out of Sharm El Sheikh International Airport, Egypt with explosive liquid craftily hidden inside of a soda can on 31 October 2015. It appears that terrorists are shifting towards using explosive devices smuggled onboard aircraft, instead of trying to hijack aircraft. Federal Air Marshal training has likely largely stayed unchanged since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Federal Air Marshals are still primarily trained in defending against terrorist hijackers from taking over physical control of civil aircraft.
Terrorists have also carried out bombings, suicide bombings, shootings and truck and car ramming attacks at airports and other places, such as the 2011 Domodedovo International Airport bombing in Moscow Oblast, Russia and the 2016 Brussels bombings which was a coordinated suicide bombing where three suicide bombers carried out two suicide bombings at Brussels Airport in Zaventem, and one suicide bombing at Maalbeek metro station in central Brussels that killed 32 civilians and wounded 300 more.
The Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program allows for certain trained pilots and copilots to carry firearms in the locked cockpit of the aircraft during flight. This was seen as a last line of defense against a terrorist hijacking. It has been rumored that there may actually be more FFDO’s than FAM’s nationwide. In addition, thousands of civilian law enforcement officers travel on aircraft with their service weapons daily. All off-duty officers carrying loaded weapons must first pass a training class in order to board with their weapon and this training is coordinated through the TSA (Transportation Security Agency). This is seen as an augmentation force to the overall protection of the civil aviation system by having pilots and copilots potentially armed as a final layer of defense against a hijacking.
1) Given that terrorists constantly change their tactics, is the Federal Air Marshal Service no longer relevant? Looking back at history, how likely is there to be another attempted or successful hijacking that threatens US soil? How successful were the hijackings of September 11th for Al Qaeda? Could this success be reason enough for Al Qaeda or ISIS/ISIL or any other terrorist organization to try again in the future?
2) Should the mission of the Federal Marshal Service be modified to keep up with the current threats posed by terrorists? How could their mission and tactics be changed to prevent the detonation of an improvised explosive device in midflight? How important is the gathering, deciphering and dissemination of intelligence to the Federal Air Marshal Service?
3) Is the Federal Air Marshal Service even worth continuing given its cost? Has the Federal Air Marshal Service likely acted as a deterrent to terrorists and prevented them from even attempting another September 11th style attack?
4) Has the Federal Flight Deck Officer program nullified the overall mission of the Federal Air Marshal Service, or has it further strengthened it? How important is secrecy to the Federal Air Marshal Service?
5) What could be some alternatives to having Federal Air Marshals aboard commercial aircraft to prevent hijackings? The reinforced cockpit door was one alternative; what are some other potential alternatives?